1902 Encyclopedia > Rationalism


RATIONALISM. In modern usage the term " rational-ism " is employed almost exclusively to denote a theological tendency, method, or system, and is then applied in a narrower and a wider sense. In its wider sense, which is most common in English theological literature, it is the name of that mode of thought generally which finds the final test of religious truth in the human understanding, conscience, or reason, and particularly in the understanding. In its narrower sense, which is almost the only sense it bears in Germany, it denotes a definite school, or rather phase of theological thought, and a phase of thought which has now been outlived. It is with rationalism in this limited sense and as a tendency of German theological thought that this article deals. Rationalism had as its antitheses on the one hand supernaturalism, and on the other naturalism or simple deism. The matter of the contention between the rationalists and these two classes of opponents was supernatural revelation—its necessity, its existence, its possibility. The naturalists denied revela-tion altogether; the supernaturalists maintained the fact of a supernatural revelation, possessing an authority above "reason," though capable of being proved by "reason." The rationalists did not deny the fact of a revelation, though in the end they ignored it and claimed the right to submit every supposed revelation to the judgment of the " reason " or the moral sense. The rationalists themselves are, however, divided by some German writers into two classes—relative and absolute—those who hold that the matter of revelation is identical with the truths of reason, but admit that of necessity, or as a matter of fact, re-velation anticipated reason, and those who really call in question the fact of a revelation, without going quite the length of the naturalists in the rejection of Christianity. Kant drew a distinction between the "rationalist" and the "pure rationalist," defining the former as one who maintains that natural religion alone is essential, and the latter as one who admits the fact of a supernatural revelation but denies that it is a part of religion to know and accept it.

German rationalism was a specific theological form of the general intellectual movement of the last century known as " illuminism " or Aufklärung; but, while the illu-minati generally ended in rejecting Christianity, the ration-alists retained and defended it in a form approved by the logical understanding or the moral sense. While ration-alism, as a child of the general intellectual movement of the age in which it appeared, owed much to the philosophy, science, and humanism of the intellectual life of Europe, as a specially theological tendency it was powerfully influ-enced by English deistical writings. Both Lechler and Ritschl assign to these writings a great immediate effect on the development of German rationalism. Of German thinkers it was especially the philosopher Wolff—who threw into a compact and systematic form, suited for Ger-man students, the philosophy of Leibnitz—who initiated German theologians into the rationalistic habit and method, though Wolff himself was a supernaturalist. The condition of the German church and the state of theology also con-tributed to the creation of rationalism. The hard intellect-ual orthodoxy of Lutheranism had already done its part towards producing the pietistic movement, and, while pietism helped to free men's minds from bondage to the Lutheran creeds and once more directed attention to the Bible, the cold intellectual habit of orthodoxy nurtured the same habit of rationalism while it failed to satisfy it, and so created a reaction against itself. Thus both orthodoxy and pietism were agents in calling forth rationalism, which was to prove the most dangerous opponent to both. More than one of the foremost rationalists had passed through the school of pietism.

Regarding rationalism as the opponent of supernaturalism and naturalism, and as an opponent which appealed in the conflict almost exclusively to either the logical under-standing or the moral sense as the criterion of religious truth, it may be said to have existed in Germany for nearly a century (c. 1740-1836), and to have flourished about half that length of time (c. 1760-1810),—that is, it took its rise simultaneously with the publication of Wolff's writ-ings (1736-50) and the translation into German of the works of the English deists (Tindal's Christianity as Old as the Creation was translated in 1741), displayed its greatest strength in Sender's critical works (1760-73) and in Kant's philosophy (1781-93), began then to decline gradually under the influence of the works of Herder, Jacobi, Fichte (in his later period), and Hegel, and at last died out when Schleiermacher especially, in the department of theology proper, and Baur and Strauss, amongst others, in the de-partment of Biblical criticism, had given currency to ideas and issues which rendered its main contentions objectless and its criteria of religious truth invalid.

The English deists, the German illuminati, and the French philosophers had before the middle of the last century, with a vast array of argument, called in question the idea of a supernatural revelation, and had seriously attacked the supernatural origin of the Hebrew and Chris-tian Scriptures. Christian Wolff undertook the defence, and claimed to have demonstrated the supernatural revelation of the Bible. He made the old distinction between natural and revealed religion of fundamental importance, and maintained that demonstrable truths alone can be re-garded as part of natural religion. Bevealed religion he drew solely from the Scriptures, and sought to prove by a chain of reasoning and historical evidence their divine ori-gin. Thus in reality the intellect alone was constituted the faculty for ultimately determining the truth of revelation as well as for constructing a natural religion. The general adoption of the distinction between natural and revealed religion, of the appeal to logical and historical evidence and argument for proof of the truths of both, and of the supposition that the truths of natural religion could be demonstrated while those of "evealed religion were above, if not contrary to reason, and rested solely on the authority of Scripture, naturally divided theologians into two hostile camps, and proved, contrary to Wolff's expectations, more favourable to the naturalists and rationalists than to the supernaturalists. If it was admitted by all that the appeal in the contention was to be to the understanding, and the religious nature and higher reason were left out of account, and if, moreover, the truths of natural religion —God, duty, immortality—were supposed by all to be de-monstrable, supernatural revelation was certain in that age to be put to great disadvantage. The result of Wolff's philosophy was a natural theology, a utilitarian system of morals, without any religious fervour or Christian profundity. Wolff's philosophy thus inaugurated in Germany a theological period corresponding, in its way, with the period in England between 1688 and 1750, when "Chris-tianity appeared to be made for nothing but to be 'proved,' " and the only test to be applied was "reason," which was simply the philosophy in vogue. In both cases religion was regarded as substantially a set of doctrines, revelation as the publication of them, and God as teaching them after the most anthropomorphic manner. No profound conception had been formed of either religion or revelation, and none at all of their relation to each other, while the idea of God was simply that of the deists.

It was in the application of its principles and method (thus brought into vogue) to Biblical studies that rational-ism won its greatest triumphs, and really accomplished its greatest measure of good work. Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791), the father of modern Biblical criticism, as the Germans call him, was the greatest representative of the school in this department. A pietist by education, with something of Gottfried Arnold's liking for heretics and all his dislike of ecclesiasticism, but with none of Arnold's mysticism, a man of immense learning, without any clear and systematic management of it, he was the first German to apply the strict principles of historical criticism, in conjunction with the rationalistic truths and errors of his day, to the study of the Scriptures and ecclesi-astical history, particularly the history of doctrines. He assailed with all the wealth of his learning the traditional view of the limits and authority of the Biblical canon especially, and having, as he held, demonstrated its human origin and fallibility, he proceeded to deal freely with the books composing it, as sharing the failings common to everything human. He found the Scriptures pervaded with " local ideas," and his Christianity was really limited to the "natural religion" of the deists and the moral truths taught by Christ. As a man who had been under a pietistic training, he was, it is true, unwilling to refer to the understanding alone for evidence of the truths of Christianity, but his enlargement of the test is confined to the admission of an appeal to the measure of virtue and happiness produced. By this extended test he tries the matter of the Scriptures, assigning to his category of local ideas " whatever is not adapted to make men wise unto their true advantage." The supernatural origin of the Scriptures as writings and most of the miracles recorded in them he rejected; but, on the other hand, he was a vigorous opponent of the adversaries of Christianity and of the naturalists who denied revelation altogether,—Beim-arus, for instance, the author of the Wolfenbüttel Frag-mente. Other decided rationalists contemporaneous with Semler were Teller (1734-1804), Eberhard (1739-1809), and Steinbart (1738-1809), who all agreed in confounding religion with morality, and in reducing Christianity to a popularization of utilitarian morals.

Meanwhile the prof ounder spirits of the nation—Lessing, Herder, Hamann, and others—were conceiving truer ideas of the nature of religion, of the human conditions of revela-tion, and of the character of the Bible and the mission of Christianity. It was, however, Kant who produced the greatest immediate effect on the history of rationalism. Himself a rationalist, regarding religion only as a form of morality, and revelation as at most a possible aid to the earlier propagation of moral principles, he nevertheless started doubts and ideas which sealed the doom of rational-ism in its first shallow form. There was an end of the demonstrable natural religion of Wolff when once Kant's criticism of the proofs of the existence of God and of the immortality of the soul met with even partial acceptance. The breath of lofty mysticism which inspired his grand ethical system was also fatal to the cold shallow reasoning and commonplace utilitarianism of previous rationalists. Yet, though Kant proclaimed principles which compelled rationalism to assume other positions, and which really contained within them the seeds of its destruction, he re-mained himself a rationalist, for the reason especially that he never advanced to a profound conception of the nature of either religion or revelation and the conditions and relations of both. His fruitful idea of the relation of revelation to a community rather than to an individual he was unable to apply properly to the revelation contained in the Bible. Though his morality was something infinitely beyond 18th-century utilitarianism, it still constituted for him religion, and the only test he applied to a professed revelation was that it must contain the purest moral teaching. Fichte, accepting Kant's ethical principles, taught that a revelation—that is, proclamation of God as the moral lawgiver of the world—might be a necessity in the case of a degeneration of mankind to such an extent that the idea of goodness should be lost. On the other hand, Fries and Jacobi took up the position of Kant regarding the limitations of human knowledge of religious truth, and still further prepared for the advance beyond rationalism by claiming for man a special religious faculty, under the names of faith, feeling, or a sense of the infinite. Fichte, in his later period, made an advance in the same direction, abandoning the abstract ethical position of Kant by an appeal to love as the supreme principle in God and man. He thus reached a position more suited for the apprehen-sion of the nature of religion, and he recognized in the workings of genius—with its incomprehensible light and movements—manifestations analogous to the phenomena of revelation. Meantime, the rationalists amongst theologians continued their work of reducing the Bible, with its history, miracles, and doctrines, by one means or another, into harmony with their notions of a rational and useful moral revelation, though for the most part they did not acknowledge the claims of the Old Testament to be considered a revelation at all, or at most a revelation for the childhood of the race. The accounts of miracles in the Bible were either denied or explained away as natural occurrences, or as poetical and Oriental phraseology, while the doctrines of the Bible and the creeds were diluted into religious or moral commonplaces. As representative Bibli-cal scholars of this class J. G. Eichhorn (1752-1827) and H. E. G. Paulus may be mentioned, as representative theologians Henke (1752-1809), Wegscheider (1771-1849), and Bohr (1752-1848).

But early in the new century the triumph of a prof ounder philosophy of religion and of a worthier treatment of re-ligious systems and the records of revelation began rapidly to make itself felt. Schleiermacher once more carried religion from the confined and frigid regions of the under-standing and the distant heights of abstract morals into the vaster and yet nearer, warmer and yet clearer, world of feeling. Following Herder, he annihilated the rational-istic distinction between natural and revealed religion by claiming revelation for all religion and religions, and he mediated in the fruitless contention of rationalism versus supernaturalism by vindicating a supernatural element for the religious life and Christianity, while at the same time he justified rationalism in its rejection of any infraction of the laws of nature. He put an end to the conception of revelation as the communication of doctrine by substituting for it the, at all events, profounder and truer view that it consists in a fundamental affection of the whole religious nature, giving it a new and special direction, the organs of it being historical personalities endowed with supreme religious genius. Hegel and Schelling contributed in other ways, particularly by substituting another idea of God and nature, to the decay of rationalism. Amongst Biblical critics De Wette, under the influence of Herder's poetic insight into early literatures and of Fries's religious philosophy, contributed largely to a truer appreciation of the Bible as literature and the record of revelation than such scholars as Eichhorn and Paulus had attained to. In the year 1828 Dr Pusey could inform English theolo-gians that the school had had its day, and early in the third decade of the century Hase was able to sum up the work of the school, which was then practically defunct, though some of its ablest representatives continued for some years to defend its positions. Hase's summary is, that rationalism failed to recognize the historical forces that condition all religious life and progress; that it necessarily issued in a barren religion of the intellect; that in the last instance it drew its decisions, not from the depths of the soul, but from a shallow popular philosophy which overlooked the rights of religious feeling; that on that account it kept its God of the outward universe as far removed from men's hearts and lives as possible; but that, nevertheless, it was through it especially that a breach between modern culture and the church was avoided and the banner of free inquiry was kept waving. Even men as far removed from rationalism as Tholuck, Corner, Bitschl, and Alexander Schweizer acknowledge that it was a means, however imperfect, of effectually upholding in the church the great principle that religious truth has an intimate affinity to man's nature and must be freely examined and intelligently appropriated. Tholuck pro-nounces it not an outward skin disease in the history of Protestantism, but an integral part of that history and a phase of its development, in some respects abnormal, in others normal and natural.

Literature.—Standlin, Geschichte des Rationalismus und Supra- naturalismus, 1826 ; Amand Saintes, Hist. crit. du Rationalisme en Allemagne, 1841 ; H. J. Rose, The State of Protestantism in Germany described, 2d ed. 1829 ; E. B. Pusey, Historical Inquiry into the Causes of the Rationalist Gliaraeter lately predominant in the Theology of Germany, 1828; Tholuck, Vorgeschichte des Rat., 1853-61, and Geschichte des Rat., 1865 ; Hase, Theolog. Streit- jschriften, 1834 Hagenbaeh, Kirchengeschichte des 18 und 19 Jahrh., 1856, 3d ed. ; Heinrich Lang, Jiin Gang durch die christ- liche Welt, 2d ed. 1870, p. 110 sq. ; Diestel, Gesehiehte des Alien Testaments in der christlichen Kirche, 1869, p. 672 sq. ; Ritschl, Christ. Lehre von der Rechtfertigung, &c, 1870, vol. i. cc. vii.-ix. ; the Histories of Protestant theology by Frank, Dorner, and Gass. (J. F. S.)

The above article was written by: Rev. J. F. Smith.

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